Mute swans pose Chesapeake conundrum

ON THE BAY

Compromise: After two years of struggle, officials have developed a plan to control the creature's growing population.

January 05, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

SO YOU LOVE birds and beasts, and the great outdoors, and you want to become a wildlife manager. Here's a case to see whether you're up to the job.

Your charges include about 4,000 of the biggest, most appealing and elegant birds on Earth, Maryland's population of mute swans. Your task is to decide how many should die. Let's start by learning not to say "kill." Say "cull." "Euthanize" is good, too.

Don't dwell on "reducing the swan population." Better to say "manage swans more aggressively." Never say "shoot." If pressed, talk about "lethal means," and remember to add, "only as a last resort."

Buttress this with "using the most humane means," even if that might be a shot to the head. Never say "shoot." Be prepared, if arguing that the mute swans are becoming a "nuisance," to field pointed questions: "define nuisance" or "nuisance by what scientific standard?"

Expect that what you see as management will be sincerely held as murder by others.

I'm being only slightly flippant, based on watching state, federal and private wildlife advocates wrestle with the mute swan issue in seven work sessions over two years, concluding a few weeks ago.

Before getting to what they decided, first a bit of history, starting with the infamous Ash Wednesday nor'easter that piled high tide upon high tide in March of 1962.

The headlines then were the devastating flooding of Ocean City. Scarcely a footnote was that the high water also let five mute swans, a European species imported as pond ornaments on estates, escape a pen on the Miles River near Easton. They bred in the wild that summer, and in a decade the five had become 35. By the mid-1990s, they had become 2,700 and number more than 4,000.

Wildlife managers expect that by 2010, if unchecked, 20,000 mute swans will live in the Maryland Chesapeake, at which point numbers would be fairly out of control.

But why control them?

The recently concluded mute swan task force was unanimous in acknowledging that they are "inherently valuable, pleasing to people, aesthetically and emotionally," and should be maintained "for public enjoyment."

But how many? This nonnative species isn't fitting well into the bay's ecology, especially when natural habitats and native species are under a multitude of stresses.

Unlike the bay's other swan, the black-beaked tundra, the orange-billed mute doesn't migrate north each spring. They stay here, consuming millions of pounds each summer of all-too-scarce underwater grasses.

Although hardly the chief threat to this critical, shallow-water bay habitat (human pollution does the most damage), the swans have significant local effects on the grasses. And their impact looks to be going nowhere but up.

Also, in recent years, mute swans have begun to expand their nesting into sites used by native species, such as terns and black skimmers, hard pressed for suitable space. So there is logic and rationale for controlling mute swans. But, of course, humans never have related to nature only logically and rationally (and never should - we'd be left with far less nature).

In 1997, government biologists used shotguns to kill a half-dozen mute swans intruding on tern and skimmer colonies, setting off public outrage that led to the formation of the swan task force.

Residents of Hoopers Island, near the "swan murders," as they termed them, videotaped the bloody white carcasses, gaining enough news media attention that Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered wildlife managers to re-examine the state's stance.

I think the biologists acted with proper ends, although maybe not with proper means (I say "maybe" not because moving parent swans off a nest with nonlethal means, while not disturbing adjacent native nesters, would be tough).

I also think it is easy to focus on species such as mute swans, which the offended local residents love to feed in their back yards, and easy to ignore species such black skimmers, which feed exclusively on the wing, over water, in remote marshes. (If you don't think skimmers are among the neatest bay birds, read Rachel Carson's classic essay, "Flood Tide," in her book "Under the Sea Wind.")

Ultimately, the swan task force did not recommend any minimum or maximum number of mute swans for the bay - any number could and would be attacked as unscientific. Instead, members said managers should enforce "swan free zones," such as around grass beds or tern nesting areas. They would exclude swans, killing them only as a last resort.

A task force member noted such zones may turn out to be a bit of an illusion. If more swans kept coming to whatever attracted their kin, successive waves of elimination-exclusion could result in fewer birds than setting a baywide population cap. Still, the recommendations were endorsed by groups that included the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States. Only Handel Hutchinson, a swan advocate from Hoopers Island, dissented.

The recommendations will be available for public comment in the next month or two, before going before the Department of Natural Resources for adoption.

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